An Electrifying Reflection on the South Asian Awareness Network’s 18th Annual Conference

Photo of SAAN Central Planning Team

February 4, 2020  |  By Nida Syed (she/her/hers), Graduate Student Program Coordinator

As a Pakistani-American woman, it has been an honor and privilege to work with the South Asian Awareness Network (SAAN) alongside Javier Solorzano Parada, Program Manager in preparation for their 18th Annual Conference: Electrify. SAAN serves to create spaces to engage and educate the University of Michigan community with the intent to promote social justice issues through a South Asian lens. This year’s conference tagline, “Sparking Action, Igniting Change,” inspired participants to become conduits for social justice and activism. Speakers sparked dialogue around the stigmatization of mental health, ownership in minority communities, gendered Islamophobia, media representation and story-telling within the South Asian community, and empowering Bengali women in the Bronx.

My family and community in Buffalo, NY, and Pakistan did not always encourage me to speak on social justice issues within the family or community. I grew up ingrained with the mentality of  “log kya kahenge?” or “what will people say?” I feared not being understood as an American and Pakistani. I feared for my family’s reputation. I feared being othered or dismissed in school, at work, and even within my own family. I feared I would be seen as overly-emotional and sensitive. I still fear all of these things and more. But now, I realize how unhealthy this pattern of silencing myself truly was and still is. 

This is one of the reasons why SAAN’s platform is necessary and important. SAAN is paving the way on campus for the voice and representation of South Asians and South Asian Americans in the public realm. In fact, Umaima Abassi (SAAN Programming) captures my sentiments on conference exactly, “It was moving to see individuals amplify the intersectionality of the South Asian community. Our speakers and their respective workshops highlighted that the South Asian community is not a monolith." 

Thanks to increased support by MESA, for the first time in history, SAAN’s annual conference was free and accessible to all. This led to a record 650 registered attendees and over 250 participants in attendance. Furthermore, this year, SAAN’s conference welcomed guests from Loyola University and Michigan State University seeking to start their own SAAN chapter on campuses. These figures and the national attention SAAN is receiving on different campuses is a testament to the reach and necessity of this very work.  

Facilitator Anu Tuladhar mentioned that facilitating a workshop dialogue with her parents present was the most meaningful aspect of the conference, as her parents took the time out of their schedules to see what she cares about, why, and what impacts her. Earlier in the day, SAAN Co-Director’s Subhan Chaudry also invited participants to give a warm welcome to his parents during the opening. The outpouring of support by family and friends truly distinguishes this conference from others on campus. While these heartwarming moments left me desiring to be able to engage with my family in such difficult conversations, I am grateful for this community and support on campus.

As the conference was coming to a close, SAAN Directors Subhan Chaudry and Anurima Kumar left participants with the reminder to stay active in a time that invites discourse, and creates a ripple in the networks we belong to. Thanks to SAAN, I was able to challenge my own and others’ perceptions of what it means to be South Asian, and for the first time engage on social justice issues within our community on such a large scale. Furthermore, SAAN allowed me to build a community on campus and beyond, and develop a greater sense of belonging and pride for my identity. 

I would like to conclude by thanking senior administration at the University of Michigan, MESA, SAAN’s Central Planning Team, facilitators, and participants for their engagement and for the opportunity to be part of this electrifying experience.  Ravi Patel (SAAN Logistics) put it best: I think we all walked away from the conference having a better understanding of my limitless power to pursue my passions and create change in our community.